Democrats are ready to embrace a class war — and blame Republicans for starting it.
The GOP’s controversial dual effort to revamp the health care system and tax code has convinced Democrats they should bluntly assail Republicans as the defenders of out-of-touch plutocrats, a message party operatives have already begun to poll-test, include in attacks ads, and use against vulnerable incumbents even before Saturday’s passage of the Senate GOP bill.
And rather than wince at the inevitable retorts that the party is trying to instigate a class war, leading party strategists say they welcome the attack — confident the GOP’s legislative priorities make them a more likely culprit in the public’s mind.
“If Democrats are worried about class war, well, the Republicans started it,” said John Lapp, a veteran Democratic strategist. “And bring it on.”
Quipped one party operative: “If we’re eating the rich, they bit first.”
An avowed focus on the middle class is part of a well-worn playbook for Democrats, who traditionally regarded themselves as the defenders of workers. But they think the message has fresh resonance now, in the face of the GOP’s legislative agenda, and especially after President Donald Trump’s populist campaign promised repeatedly to defend the working class.
“Democrats have a pretty simple message: Republicans have failed to defend working families both in terms of health care and in this awful tax bill,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, a Super PAC aligned with Senate Democrats. “2018 is about holding them accountable for making the promise.”
Poersch and other top Democrats still shy away from the rhetoric of class warfare: It’s the kind of sharp-elbowed view Democrats in Washington rarely hold, especially if they’re worried about political moderates.
But top Democratic officials also see the GOP’s big legislative pushes this year as having fundamentally changed the electoral landscape, turning issues — such as taxes — that were once core Republican strengths into weaknesses. The approach is also one likely to please many in the party’s populist wing who think their candidates should aggressively campaign on issues of economic justice in the way former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did in the 2016 party primary.
One TV and online ad, released a week ago by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, offered a preview of the approach. It shows voters receiving news that their taxes had gone up because of the GOP’s tax bill, blaming the increases on the desire of Republicans to cut big companies a break.
“The Republican tax scheme gives huge tax breaks to corporations but raises taxes on middle-class families,” says a narrator in the ad.
Lapp, who made the spot, says it’s the kind of message he expects Democrats will repeat over and over again next year.
“You’re going to see a lot of ads that very matter-of-factly say how much this is going to cost you, and how Republicans are only looking out their special-interest donors and not you,” he said.
The party has reason for optimism, according to polls, which show big majorities of Americans are opposed to the GOP’s tax reform and think the measure will disproportionately help the rich. A mid-November survey from Quinnipiac University found that 52 percent of voters disapproved of the plan, while 59 percent said it would overwhelmingly help wealthy Americans at the expense of the middle class.
Support for the GOP’s health care bill, which failed to gain passage in the Senate earlier this year, is even lower in most polls.
“It does come down to a numbers game,” said Tyler Law, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the political arm of House Democrats. “They are pushing an agenda that hurts the vast majority of Americans.”
Rather than having to choose which issue to highlight during the 2018 campaigns, they argue taxes and health care make the same big-picture point: Republicans no longer defend the working class, whether by taking away health care benefits that primarily help poorer voters or by funneling tax cuts predominantly to the rich.
“If this is class warfare, Republicans have declared war on the middle class,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. “This entire year has been a war on the middle class, from health care to taxes.”